Shiva as Ardhanareeshvara

  • By B L Razdan
  • September 26, 2023
Ardhanareeshvara at 5 Rathas, Mahabalipuram
  • What is Ardhanareeshvara and importantly, deeper significance.

Shiva is called Ardhanareeshvara because in this form, He is depicted as half-man, half-woman. This represents the balance and unity of the male and female principles in the world, as also the balance of the masculine and feminine aspects of life.


Ardhanareeshvara is a combination of three words, Ardha, Nari, and Ishwara, meaning ‘half’, ‘woman’, and ‘lord’, respectively, which when combined means the lord who is half-woman. The Lord is Shiva and the woman part is his consort Goddess Parvati or Shakti. 


Ardhanareeshvara represents constructive and generative power and symbolises that male and female principles are inseparable. It also conveys the unity of the opposites in the universe. The male half stands for Purusha and the female half for Prakriti. Ardhanareeshvara harmonises the two conflicting ways of life: The spiritual way of the ascetic as represented by Shiva, and the materialistic way of the householder symbolised by Parvati. It conveys that Shiva and Shakti are one and the same.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal.


Legend has it that once, at Mount Kailash, Lord Shiva and the Divine Mother Parvati were by themselves. In a very playful mood, Parvati crept up behind Lord Shiva and closed his eyes with her palms. As a result, the whole universe was enveloped in a blinding darkness. After all, Lord Shiva’s two eyes were the eyes for the entire universe! Then Lord Shiva opened his third eye, and illumined the entire universe as before. But Parvati felt embarrassed for her act, and prayed to Lord Shiva to suggest a means for the repentance of her act. Shiva advised her to do tapasya (penance) and directed her to begin her tapasya at Kashi.


After many years of tapasya, she was advised by Lord Shiva to do tapasya at Kanchipuram. Parvati pleaded with Lord Shiva that she could not bear separation from Him anymore, and prayed for union with Him. Lord Shiva then promised Parvati that He would grant her His left half when she completed her tapasya at Tiruvannamalai. She completed her tapasya at Kanchipuram, and came to Tiruvannamalai for her final tapasya. Pleased with her tapasya, Lord Shiva granted His left side to her and thus was created Ardhanareeshvara.

The 9-quatrain Ardhanari Nateshvara Stotra composed by Adi Shankaracharya, a popular hymn dedicated to the deity, begins with this introductory verse:


Champeya Gaurardha

Shareerakayai Karpoora

Gaurardha Shareerakaya

Dhammillakayai Cha

Jataadharaya Namah

Shivayai Cha Namah Shivaya


Translated as - Salutations to Shiva, who has a jasmine-coloured, fair half-form and who has long and beautiful curly locks. Salutations to Shiva, who has camphor-coloured half[1]form and who has matted tresses.


According to the Shiva Purana, the story of Lord Shiva’s Ardhanareeshvara avatar began after the completion of the creation of the world by Lord Brahma. After creating the world, he saw that there was no further development in the world and everything remained static. The number of animals, birds, humans, and insects that he had created were not increasing as he had created only male beings. Seeing this, Brahma got upset. Lord Vishnu asked him to do penance and pray to Lord Shiva.


Lord Shiva was pleased with Brahma’s tenacity and ordered him to bring forth the Maithuni creation. Brahma asked Lord Shiva to explain the meaning of the Maithuni creation. Lord Shiva then assumed the Ardhanareeshvara avatar and revealed half of his body in a feminine form. This was when the male and female parts were separated. Brahma requested the female half of Lord Shiva to give him a female so that his creation, ‘the world’, can continue to grow. The Goddess agreed to his request and created a female using the power from her own body. 


As per the Skanda Purana, Goddess Parvati requested Lord Shiva to allow her to reside with him by embracing him ‘limb-to-limb’, thereby creating the ‘Ardhanareeshvar form’ of Shiva. It tells us that when Andhaka (the demon) wanted to seize Goddess Parvati to make her his wife, it was Lord Vishnu who rescued her and brought her to his abode. This was when the demon followed her and Goddess Parvati revealed her Ardhanareeshvara form to him. Seeing the half-male and half-female form, the demon lost interest in her and left. Seeing this form of Goddess Parvati, Lord Vishnu was amazed and could see himself in the female part of the form.


The Matsya Purana describes how Brahma, pleased with a penance performed by Parvati, rewards her by blessing her with a golden complexion. This renders her more attractive to Shiva, in whom she later merges to form one half of his body.


The Linga Purana advocates the worship of Ardhanareeshvara by the devotees so that they attain union with Shiva upon the dissolution of the world and thus attain salvation.


The Nayanar saints of Tamil Nadu exalt the deity in hymns. While the 8th century Nayanar saint Sundarar says that Shiva is always inseparable from the Mother Goddess, another 7th century Nayanar saint Sambandar describes how the ‘eternal feminine’ is not only his consort, but also part of him. 


The renowned Sanskrit writer Kalidasa alludes to Ardhanareeshvara in the invocations of his Raghuvamsha and Malavikagnimitram, and says that Shiva and Shakti are as inseparable as word and meaning.


The 9th century Nayanar saint Manikkavachakar circumambulating only the male half, drilling a hole in the navel of the deity, which separated the male half from the female half. Though not entirely pleased, Parvati, amazed at his devotion to her Lord, reconciled with Bhringi and blessed him.


To the lovers of Sanatana Dharma, its spiritual significance is of utmost importance. Lord Shiva in His form as the Ardhanareeshvara, represents the enlightened state of existence, where the masculine and the feminine elements have become perfectly balanced. The same thing happens when a person becomes enlightened. An enlightened soul is also half man and half woman, meaning, the male and female elements have become perfectly balanced.


In the relative world, an enlightened soul can function both as a man and as a woman too, while his/her essential true nature is beyond the distinctions of male and female. When each one of us becomes spiritually enlightened, we ourselves become the versions of Ardhanareeshvara or the perfect reflections of that original Ardhanareeshvara, Lord Shiva Himself! This story is based on the Arunachala Mahatmyam


The manifestation of Shiva in his Ardhanareeshvara form is the perception of the unity of conflicting elements. It clearly points to the relevance of Advaitvad over Dvaitvaad. Lord Shiva, as Sadashiva, Adishiva or Adiyogi, manifests in His being the composite character of existence. It also proves that the two sets of diverse elements are actually superfluous and are, in fact, one.


Ardhanareeshvara is one of the 64 manifestations of Parashiva, the aspect of Lord Shiva who is Absolute, beyond all human comprehension and is hence considered the Nirguna Brahman, the Supreme One, who is well beyond any attributes whatsoever.  


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 1 September 2023 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.

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